07/20/2008 11:00PM

Santa Rosa out to end decline at fairs

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Racing returns to Wine Country on Wednesday with the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, traditionally the top meet on the summer fair tour.

But will the Sonoma County Fair 2008 feel the same decline in both field size and quality that the first two fair meets did?

Both the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton (June 25-July 6) and the Solano County Fair in Vallejo (July 9-21) were affected by a general shortage of horses in Northern California as well as a change in the fair schedule. Previously, the fair season would kick off with the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton, but this year the Stockton meet will be run in September. That meant the Pleasanton meet came immediately following the close of the Golden Gate meeting, and many of the horses from that meet were not able to run back either there or at Vallejo. Many of the better horses on the fair circuit come out of the Golden Gate meet.

With the opening of Del Mar last week, the horse population in Northern California fell further. Trainers Jerry Hollendorfer, Billy Morey, Gloria Buckridge, and the father-son team of Art and Steve Sherman have sent horses to Del Mar.

"There may be 1,800 horses in Northern California, but, realistically, only about 600 are really available at each fair," racing secretary Tom Doutrich said.

If there is a saving grace for Santa Rosa, it's the turf course, which is the only one on the fair circuit before the San Mateo Fair at Bay Meadows in August. The turf course will be used three times on opening day, with a $25,000 claimer, $32,000 optional claimer, and $6,250 starter allowance carded for the grass.

"I think some of the owners of turf horses waited in Northern California because they knew there would be four weeks of turf racing coming up," said Richard Lewis, who oversees the racing at Santa Rosa.

Both of the 2-year-old stakes at the meet, the $50,000 Wine Country Juvenile on July 27 and the $50,000 Cavonnier Juvenile on Aug. 3, have been lengthened from 5 1/2 furlongs to six furlongs.

"That's got to help the 2-year-old program in Northern California," said Lewis, a former trainer. "We can get them to run a mile earlier with races at six furlongs now."

Candidates for Santa Rosa stakes

Among the possibles for the Wine Country Juvenile and Cavonnier Juvenile are Maidens Justice, who won the Lost in the Fog at Golden Gate, and Conga Kaye, winner of the Juan Gonzalez at Pleasanton.

She's Sensational, who won the Alameda County Handicap on July 5 at Pleasanton on the dirt, will likely run in Saturday's Luther Burbank on the turf. She may be better on turf than dirt; she has won two allowance races and finished fourth in the Yerba Buena over the Bay Meadows grass. Saratoga's Magic, who won the Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton, could run in the Joseph Grace on the turf Aug. 2.

* The San Mateo Fair meet at Bay Meadows will conclude Sunday, Aug. 17, in what is expected to be the track's final day of racing. The track is expected to be torn down to make way for offices and other development. Doutrich said the turf club is already sold out for closing day.

* Bar JF Hot Ticket ($2.10) continued his domination of mule racing with a 3 1/2-length victory in a 350-yard race at Solano on Sunday. Bar JF Hot Ticket, Sarah Nelson, and Smoking Joe combined for a $1.80 payout in the $1 trifecta. The exacta of Bar JF Hot Ticket and Sarah Nelson paid $1.70 for $1. There was no place or show wagering on the field of six.